Iconic songwriter Allen Toussaint passed away today at age 77. A New Orleans native, and a mainstay of the city’s musical life for well over 50 years, Toussaint wrote, arranged and produced for Big Easy legends such as the Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey. Rolling Stone reached Toussaint in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 devastation of the city. In this previously unpublished interview with Contributing Editor Steve Knopper, Toussaint reflects on the resilience of New Orleans culture and the depth of his connection to the city he loved.
How are you doing?
I’m very well. Thank you very much. I normally would stay right through hurricanes — I’ve been through all of them since I was born. This one, of course, was the biggie — this was the zenith of hurricanes. I stayed in my home until it was just about recommended that anyone should leave that area, so I went and checked into Astor Hotel on Canal Street. Then the storm really, really hit and water was everywhere. Canal Street was flooded — I wouldn’t say it was up to roofs on Canal Street, but it was at least too high to drive a conventional vehicle through. We were stuck in a hotel and then the power went out, of course; then the water lines were corrupted and corroded. The water was not totally safe — they recommended that water was boiled before you consumed it. I used bottled water after that. I was in a hotel where the people did very well on limited resources; they ran a generator.
I must say I saw the human drama in full force. I saw the balancing act of heroes and mulligans — but I saw more heroes than I saw “other than.” In spite of all that it was, and is, I’m glad that I was there through it because I’m a diehard Orleanian for one thing. If it happened in New Orleans — whether it’s good bad or indifferent — I’m glad I was there. As much water as they had, my spirit did not get consumed. I’m looking forward to the future of rebuilding New Orleans. I never was worried about my life, no. I always knew exactly where I was and the conditions — it was always livable to me …. As ironically as it may sound, I was still glad to be there.
When and how did you leave?
It was the day before — when they were announcing that the city should be evacuated. My way of evacuating the city was just evacuating my house and going down to a hotel. The area that I live in … They showed aerial shots, could only see rooftops. I did the right thing by going to the hotel when I did. My house, two floors — maybe something [can be] salvaged on [the] second level. My piano and all my equipment — that’s all probably gone. But it has served me well for a long time so I really don’t mind the process of rebuilding.
Did you lose sentimental items?
Oh, yes, definitely — and about many, many other things. We all have those sentimental things — some things we have for 10 years and suddenly. Fine Steinway — but there are other Steinways and I’m looking forward to new things and exciting times, purchasing new things and seeing things that I didn’t have.
I left the city yesterday. I finally was able to get a chartered bus from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and from Baton Rouge, 6:50 this morning, I was able to get a flight to Houston, Texas, and immediate connection onto Joshua, New York. [I’ll] be finding momentary residence for a brief spell. I’m looking forward to being here because I love New York.
Tell me about the Steinway you mentioned you lost.
Owned that Steinway since the Seventies — it’s been a dear friend and confidante, you might say.
How were people dealing with each other during the crisis?
I guess everyone saw a lot of looting on TV and things of that nature, people really yelling at each other and stealing various things. There was some of that. But there was more — beautiful things happened, with people interacting with each other, really communicating in ways that they didn’t know that they could. People could do many things with others — a guy looked like he was maybe someone to be afraid of, maybe helping [an] old lady get some water. That was just delightful — I saw lots of things like that going on.
Where exactly did you live?
I lived near Bayou St. John, lived near the Fairgrounds where the Jazz Festival takes place. From my bedroom balcony over my background, I could hear everyone tuning up during Jazz Fest. When I left my house, it all hadn’t started; [it] started to rain a little. Soon thereafter, it was right underwater in the area. House had four to seven feet of water. I saw aerial views of the area. Sometimes you could see rooftops and two to three feet.
Did you live alone or with other people?
Alone. Oh, definitely — my daughter Alison and her family went to Houston at the first sign. My son Reggie, who’s the engineer and the percussionist, and his family, went to Texas as well. They’re not as diehard as I am. But then they have more people to move about.
I heard your daughter tried to get you to leave much sooner than you did — accurate?
Accurate. Every time! She always tries to get me out early, but it won’t happen. It was a New Orleans event and I was there and I’m glad to say I was there to see it, whether good or bad. Again, I say the human drama was overwhelming.